SharePoint 2007 has a great interface. Those of us that used SharePoint 2003 can really appreciate the improvements that have been made. However in some situations SharePoint needs a little boost. Users need a little more than a web interface can offer. This blog post will explain some of the ways you can use Outlook 2007 as a SharePoint client. We'll cover how it can used online and offline to work with SharePoint content.
Like I said, the regular web interface is great in SharePoint. If it's so great then why would you want to use Outlook as a SharePoint client? There are two main reasons. The first reason is a matter of preference. Some people work out of Outlook 90% of the time and are very comfortable there. If they can use that same program to access SharePoint data, it makes them more likely to use SharePoint. The second reason is practical. Outlook can be used to take SharePoint content offline. This gives users the flexibility to work with SharePoint contact at home or while traveling. Another benefit of this is users that have slow connections to SharePoint. It might be easier for VPN users to work with SharePoint offline than live. Or maybe you have a remote office that doesn't have a good connection to the SharePoint servers. It's always good to have options. Let's find out what those options are.
SharePoint 2003 offered some integration with Outlook 2003, but it really wasn't useful. You couldn't sync in both directions. Things have changed. With SharePoint 2007 and Outlook 2007 you can sync data both ways. Changes made in SharePoint show up in Outlook, and now changes made in Outlook are synced back to SharePoint. And when I say SharePoint I mean that this works with both WSS v3 and MOSS 2007.
When you choose to sync a list or library with Outlook a new data file is created in Outlook. This file is a standard PST file and it is used to store all the content cached from SharePoint. This is important to understand because it means that if you use Exchange none of your SharePoint data is stored in your Exchange mailbox, so it won't fill your mailbox up. This also means that your SharePoint data won't be available outside of Outlook in places like Outlook Web Access or mobile devices that you sync with Exchange. I don't have any ideas of good ways to get your SharePoint data to either of those places. Once you've added a SharePoint list to Outlook you can view the properties of the SharePoint data file by clicking Tools > Account Settings in Outlook.
Then click Data Files. Notice there's also a tab that lists all the SharePoint lists themselves.
So how do we actually get SharePoint data into Outlook? The process is incredibly easy. First, the list or library must be one that can be synced to Outlook. That means it must be one of the following types: document library, picture library, form library, contacts, calendar, discussion lists, tasks or project tasks. Open any list or library based on one of those templates. Click the Actions button and choose Connect to Outlook.
Outlook will pop up a dialog box asking you if you want to connect this to Outlook and allow you to tweak some settings, like the name as it's displayed in Outlook. Once you hit Okay the connection will be made and Outlook will open up the list or library. If you switch back to your folder list you'll see the new data store that's created and you'll see the list or library you've added.
If at any time you want to remove the list you can right click on it and choose Delete.
Since I used a Calendar in the example, let's cover what you can do in Outlook with a SharePoint Calendar. First, like I said before you can add appointments either in Outlook or SharePoint and it will get synced. You can also edit appointments in one and the change will be visible in the other. While you can't view a SharePoint Calendar via OWA or a Windows Mobile device, you can manually drag an appointment from a SharePoint Calendar to your Exchange Calendar. Using Outlook's Overlay Mode you can combine the results of your Outlook Calendar and a SharePoint Calendar.
Whether you combine the calendars or not you'll also get reminds in Outlook for Appointments in SharePoint.
Contacts lists can also be synced to Outlook. You set the sync up the same way. SharePoint Contacts lists make a great way to share contacts with a group. After the Contact list has been connected to Outlook it can be added as an Outlook Address Book so that the addresses can be used when sending email. To do this right click on the SharePoint Contacts list and open up the Properties. Open the Outlook Address Book tab and verify it is checked.
If you want to give the list another name you can do it here.
You can also sync Task Lists with Outlook. You connect them up the same way you do Contacts and Calendars. Like Contacts and Calendars you can edit SharePoint tasks in Outlook and the changes will sync in both directions. The tasks assigned to you will also show up in your To-Do Bar in Outlook along with your Outlook Tasks. You can also view all of the Tasks if you'd like.
Probably the most handy way to use Outlook as an offline SharePoint client is with Document and Picture libraries. Connecting a document library to Outlook allows you to work with your documents when you do not have access to your SharePoint server. While you can read and edit files from your document libraries, you can't use your Outlook folders to add files. You have to enable Incoming E-mail on the document library in order to add files. Files that haven't been synced back up to SharePoint will show up in your SharePoint Drafts Search Folder.
If you do decide to connect a document library to Outlook you'll probably want to enable version control. That will protect the work that you and others do on a document when you're offline. While you're online and Outlook can contact SharePoint any changes you make to documents will be synchronized immediately in the background. While you're offline of course the documents won't be synchronized until you connect again. You can use the Send/Receive button to synchronize changes once you get back online.
I hope this blog has shown you some options for accessing SharePoint offline, or on slow links. Outlook can bridge the online and offline gap.
There are other methods of accessing SharePoint offline. If there is interest in it I can write about it later.